The Good Life

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Gary Chapman
University of Texas at Austin

"What is the good life?" An answer to that question has so many variations today that the competition between answers can often paralyze the imaginations of people who want to implement positive social change. How can one break through the noise and violence of such competition and begin moving global society in a positive and deliberate direction?


People who hope for a better world feel the need for a shared vision of the "good life," a vision that is flexible enough for innumerable individual circumstances but comprehensive enough to unite people in optimistic, deliberate, progressive social change. Ideally, this shared vision of the "good life" should promote and sustain conviviality and solidarity among people, as well as feelings of individual effectiveness, self-worth and purpose. A shared vision of the "good life" is never complete, but is always adapting; it should be "in harmony with the human condition," which means that it encompasses suffering, loss and conflict as well as pleasures, reverence and common goals of improvement. An emergent framework for the modern "good life" is based on some form of humanism, particularly pragmatic or civic humanism, but with room for a spiritual dimension of the mind that does not seek domination over the minds of others. Finally, the environmental crises of the planet require a broad vision of a "good life" that can harmonize human aspirations with natural limits. And all of this needs to be an ongoing and open-ended "conversation," best suited to small geographic groups, such as towns and neighborhoods, that can craft and then live an identity that reflects their vision of a "good life."


Ever since people first began to understand the implications of the time-limits of the human life, there has been speculation on what constitutes the best use of this time, a human lifespan -- in other words, what is the "good life?"

Throughout human history and even today, the answer to this question, for most people, is provided by God and by ritual. That is, the fundamental guide for how to live life is religion expressed through ritual, not only the formal rituals of religious practice but the small daily rituals of an existence permeated with conventions derived from religious guidance. For billions of people today, this is so ingrained in their psyches that doubt about what constitutes the "good life" is absent -- or else a personal secret.

But there is are many other meanings attached to the phrase "the good life." Aristotle argued that the good life is the "bios theoretikos," the contemplative life, in which the aristos, the "best man," spends his life contemplating the order of the cosmos and his place in it. This was transformed by Christianity into the life of the cloister, in which monks and nuns were meant to spend their lives contemplating the wonder of God's work. But it was also embedded into the practice of philosophy in the Western tradition, both metaphysical and otherwise, so that there is still today a strong Aristotelian association between the "good life" and the life of the mind.

It was in Renassiance Italy that Western thinkers first ventured a potential break between the idea of the "good life" and religion, by suggesting that the best example of a good life was a man of "virtu," or the earthly qualities of courage, deliberate action and command -- someone who would be remembered in history, rather than rewarded in heaven. Machiavelli derided Christianity as a belief of meekness and submission, while he advocated a robust republican humanism that celebrated worldly success and the ability to turn one's life into a kind of work of art, not unlike the famous works of art of his time.

The great break of modernity, the separation of modern thinking with that of the past, is the idea that the "good life" is a matter of individual choice -- "the pursuit of happiness," as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it. English rationalists, Marxian communists and even conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke all shared this premise: the goal of life is happiness and self-fulfillment.

Thus it has been the explosion of interpretations of the path to happiness that has produced so many competing conceptions of the good life. For many people today, the phrase "the good life" conjures up fantasies of unlimited wealth, leisure and luxury. This has certainly been the interpretation of marketers in a consumerist economy like our own.

On the other hand, for large numbers of people, the "good life" means simplicity and even austerity, an escape from the stress and bustle of urban life, pure air and water, the conviviality of a small rural community and good health. This is a model promoted by a series of books written in the 1930s by Scott and Helen Nearing, who moved to a farm in Vermont in 1932 and then published "The Good Life," a book about "simple, frugal and purposeful living," which was followed by more books and national speaking tours. The Good Life Center, a modern example of the Nearings' work, is still in operation in Harborside, Maine. Elements of this interpretation of the good life are now found in the "Slow Food" movement of southern Europe (and in some groups in the U.S.), and its spin-off in Italy, the Slow Cities (Slow Cittá) movement. This trend has even acquired a label: "downshifting."

The challenge of the current situation in the modern world is to develop the vision of a "good life" that is not anti-technological nor anti-spiritual, but which is serious about the limits of the global enviroment and critical of the emptiness, anomie and hectic "busy-ness" of consumerism. But cities are not going away -- they're growing, around the world -- so we need models of the "good life" that embrace urban living; indeed, population density is likely to be a necessity in the future.

There is an emerging concept of what might be called "reverent humanism," borrowing terms from philosophers Paul Woodruff (Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue) and Luc Ferry (What Is the Good Life?). This proposes a blend of rational and practical humanism with an appreciation of the transcendent, whether it be beauty, the law, or the ineffable spirit of human perseverance. Such a worldview depends on the support of a social context, a community of equals engaged in open-ended dialog that rejects absolute knowledge -- a modernized version of the res publica, the ideal of the Italian Renaissance. The inspiring ideas of the "Slow Food" movement bring in the pleasures of good food, drink, conviviality and ecological balance, while globalization and communications technologies -- especially the Internet -- make possible a sharing of innovations and the development of an appreciation for diversity and peace.


A revitalization of the idea of the "good life" should reinvigorate the ancient appeal of civic humanism, or "reverent humanism," that can embrace human potential, limits to consumerism but yet technological innovation, diversity and transcendence. The development of such an ideal should be a project -- explicit or implicit -- among groups dedicated to progressive social change. And "living the change you want" should become an essential part of the mission of all such groups.

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